It hurt. I hurt.
My actions seemed completely involuntary, as though my hands and mouth and esophagus were running on a motor independently of the rest of my body. Even as I ate, I remember thinking, what are you doing, Alana? I wasn’t hungry. All I knew for sure was that this feeling — the shameful, uncomfortable feeling of purposely overeating — had to be better than the harsh, anticipatory grief I’d been carrying around with me. Anything, I figured, had to feel better than that.
My grandfather died about a month or so later, but my eating disorder was just getting started. As I returned to college that fall, I promptly gained about 20 pounds by consoling myself with late-night takeout and cafeteria comfort food, trying to ease how deeply sad and alone I felt away at school. I wasn’t huge on alcohol — if I had been, at least I may have had a wider social circle — but I was big on food, and what’s more is that food seemed to be big on me, too. It was there for me when I began having panic attacks while riding the packed bus to my classes. It was there for me as I descended into a pit of depression, unable to entice myself to finish assignments, or to roll out of bed before noon. And food and I shared plenty of happy moments too — dinners out with the few friends I’d made, or homemade meals cooked with my visiting boyfriend, who lived two hours away and who I spent a good deal of my time missing terribly.
I hated my body — my too-short, too-fat body and its penchant for carrying most of my extra pounds disproportionately in my chest and around my middle. And with the exception of some crash dieting, and a couple stints with points-counting commercial weight-loss programs, that didn’t really change much no matter what I did.
I didn’t talk about my weight with anyone but my very closest friends, my thinking being that if I never mentioned it, everyone else around me would assume I must not think it actually mattered, that maybe I was above worrying about something as trivial as my body shape. But in the years after graduation, my eating disorder escalated. I turned to food for comfort as I struggled to transition to full-blown adulthood, bingeing regularly as I hopped from one miserable job to another, feeling lost without the support and structure that school had provided. My hometown boyfriend and I got engaged a year later, and I managed to slim down in time for our wedding by swapping out my overeating for months of majorly unhealthy caloric restriction (I was determined to be a skinny bride no matter what), but the moment we jetted off on our honeymoon, the hotel buffet welcomed me back with open arms.
It was only food, I figured, not cocaine or hard liquor, and why is being fat such a bad thing anyway?
The more time I spent feeding my food addiction in the years that passed, the more eating became an obsession. I began lying about food, hiding my treats from my husband and burying the wrappers deep in the garbage to ensure he wouldn’t know that I just ate six glazed doughnuts in one sitting without sharing, or that I’d polished off an entire box of mini Halloween chocolate, one fun-sized bar at a time.
Social eating started to become deeply uncomfortable — I had to pretend, for example, that I hadn’t painstakingly pored over every detail of the menu in advance, deciding exactly what I would eat, or that it didn’t make my heart sink completely when my dinner companions would announce at the end of our meal that they were “too full for dessert” (a concept I still honestly cannot wrap my head around), as I was too embarrassed to be the only one indulging. With my husband, on the other hand, our dinner dates would more often than not end with me eating so much that I would feel physically sick, and after one particularly shameful Valentine’s Day dinner at a fancy steakhouse, I accidentally cut our romantic evening short by falling asleep, still in my dress and heels, from what I can only describe as a total food coma.
When I became a mom to twins a few years later, food consoled me on days when the kids had been extra tantrum-y, or whenever I felt exhausted or isolated (which, honestly, was pretty often). Some nights, I’d tuck my kids into bed and spend the rest of the evening scrolling Pinterest for dessert recipes I didn’t even intend to make, or filling my cart on grocery store websites with treats that I had no plan to buy — by that point, even hypothetical food felt like a friend. Other days, the nagging urge to binge would be there as soon as I woke up, and throughout the day I’d sneak away while my children were playing to scour my cupboards and desk drawers and linen closet where I hid my secret stashes of cookies or chocolate, finding breathless relief in sugar the way others do with whiskey or cigarettes or pills. But each time, after I’d finished, I’d begin to mentally berate myself, certain that the key to stopping my compulsive urges to eat was just making myself feel worse than I ever had before.
What everyone conveniently forgets to mention about losing a not-insignificant amount of weight is that your body doesn’t usually end up looking like a magically-airbrushed infomercial 'after' photo.
Even though my binges made me feel immensely guilty and ashamed, I rationalized my behavior by telling myself it wasn’t really that big of a deal. It was only food, I figured, not cocaine or hard liquor, and why is being fat such a bad thing anyway? But as my babies turned into preschoolers who were becoming wise to the reality that dessert was way more fun than dinner, it dawned on me that my eating disorder was no longer just about me — it was going to start affecting them, too. As their mother, I wanted to model healthy eating, moderation, eating for nourishment, and body positivity. But the truth was that all I really had to offer them was food addiction and deep-rooted self-loathing. I may not have loved myself enough to face my eating issue, but I definitely loved my children enough to look into finally getting help.
So, about a month after my 30th birthday, I put my kids to bed and typed “binge eating disorder Toronto,” in the Google search box on my phone. It wasn’t the first time I’d mulled over the idea of some kind of therapy or medical intervention, but it was the first time I’d learned that there were easily accessible options I literally had no excuse not to try. What I found was a 12-step program, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, that purported to help people overcome their food disorders. Envisioning an actual end to what I’d long ago assumed would be a lifelong battle, I attended my first meeting that very week.
I’ve been in the program for almost eight months now, and even though I know I’ve only just begun to chip away at what I hope becomes solid, long-term recovery, the good news is that it’s already helped me a lot. I’ve managed to get a decent-enough grip on my compulsive eating. I’ve also managed to lose almost 40 pounds as a result, without trying all that hard. But, as it turns out, that’s also been the bad news. Because as much as I have always longed to lose weight, believing that this would be the real key to my happiness, the reality is that losing my extra weight just gave me a whole new set of reasons to hate my own body.
What everyone conveniently forgets to mention about losing a not-insignificant amount of weight is that your body doesn’t usually end up looking like a magically-airbrushed infomercial “after” photo. What they don’t tell you is that, between the loose skin, stretch marks, and a general “deflating” of parts that less than a year ago had been previously soft and round, a post-weight-loss body isn’t actually all it’s cracked up to be. Even in recovery, as my fellow binge-eaters and I pat each other on the back and comment on how wonderful we all look, I can’t help but feel like I’m missing the mark. Because when I glimpse my naked body in the bathroom mirror before a shower or when my mind gets distracted during sex by the way my breasts hang lower, or the way my C-section scar stands out, angry and uneven, now that my oversized belly no longer covers it, I think, is this it? Is this what I’d been dreaming of for so long?
The answer, of course, is no. As with any other kind of eating disorder or addiction, as with any kind of self-loathing mind game, the dream is never even sort of going to be the reality. The truth is that, while I may be thinner, the part of my brain that never learned how to like myself — the part of my brain that wants to abuse food — is the same part that won’t ever possibly be happy with what it sees. Not only did losing weight not swiftly solve all of my problems; it was never actually going to.
This, I’m realizing, is likely where the real recovery begins. Just like an alcoholic has to learn how to exist as the person they are when they are not hiding behind booze, I now have to learn to be a person who can withstand the pain I’ve always swifty self-medicated, the normal human emotions that have made me so uncomfortable that I needed to eat to push them away. Losing weight may have happened as a result of my eating disorder recovery, but it’s not what’s going to heal me. Now it’s time to finally learn how to accept my body, however it looks. And while that may be a daunting (and very long-overdue) task, it’s one that I finally feel prepared to start working towards.